A response to critics #3: independent schools
One month ago, I published a historical critique of progressive education entitled Progressively Worse. It has two essential arguments. Firstly, from the 1960s onwards progressive education became a powerful orthodoxy within the state education system. Secondly, it has failed to improve the quality of education in our schools.
Progressively Worse is not about independent schools, but the independent sector does warrant a small mention in the conclusion. I write:
Independent schools have by no means been impervious to progressive education, but compared to the state sector, they have withstood the wilder extremes of the movement.
I continue that this essential traditionalism is one of the major reasons for the sustained success of independent schools. This argument is prefaced by a statement which provoked the anger of Debra Kidd and her followers:
Note from the tweet, Kidd came to the verdict that my book is ‘tosh’ a full six days before it was published. This was on the basis of the Amazon ‘Look Inside’ option – a fair indication that Kidd read the above extract in isolation. So allow me to contextualise.
British independent schools are respected and replicated the world over. Last summer, it was reported that British private schools now have 29 overseas campuses, educating some 18,784 pupils. In addition, there are currently 25,912 non-British pupils whose parents live abroad being sent to Independent Schools Council schools (5% of the total), and the numbers are growing – particularly from Russian, Chinese and Nigerian pupils. It would be churlish not to consider the possibility that these schools might be doing something right.
Secondly, if you read the historical chapters of my book, it provides basis for the claim that state maintained schools have been a ‘persistent source of national embarrassment’. Long before PISA rankings laid bare the relative underperformance of British schoolchildren, Sig Prais was reaching the same conclusion at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. Just to give one example, in 1988, he asked a comparable group of 14 year olds the same set of maths questions in Japan and Britain. Amongst Japanese children, 48 per cent could solve a simple algebraic equation, which only 22 per cent of British children could solve. He reached similar conclusions comparing British schoolchildren to German.
In 1983, the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) introduced a new question to their survey: ‘How would you compare the overall standards of education in schools today with the standards when you were at school?’ Only 39% thought standards had improved. The following year, this number dropped to 37%. From then on, BSAS stopped asking the question. The claim I made in the conclusion was, in part, a historical one. Had Kidd read the preceding chapters of Progressively Worse, I hope she would have realised it was not without basis.
Many critics responded to my claim by referencing the PISA ‘In Focus’ report, Private schools: Who benefits?. This report shows that if one accounts for socio-economic background amongst British pupils, there is no difference in performance at private schools compared to state schools. Except that it does not show this. The adjusted figures calculated by PISA show pupil performance ‘After accounting for student background characteristics, school autonomy and school competition for students.’ How one devises a model to account for such differences, I have no idea.
Also, were it really the case that British pupils do just as well at state schools than at private schools, do you not think money-savvy parents would have noticed by now? A 2012 survey commissioned by the ISC found that 57% of parents surveyed would educate their child privately if they had the financial means. Of all the adults questioned, 59% said that educational standards in state schools are lower than in fee-paying schools, while 23% said they are about the same. Only 6% claimed standards are higher in state schools. Additionally, the evidence of the PISA report is at variance with the findings of Prof Jesson, who in 2005 found that pupils scoring level 5 in Key Stage 2 Sats were three times more likely to go on to gain three As at A-level if they went on to be educated independently.
I realise that I am painting in broad brush strokes, and am fully aware that in many areas of England there are state schools which are just as good as independent alternatives. After Kidd tweeted the extract from my book, many other tweachers invited me to come and visit their schools which are far from embarrassing. This was misinterpreting what I wrote: I was making an observation about the broad trends of teaching fashions within state and independent schools. It was not aimed at particular examples.
Allow me to emphasise, I am not listing all of this information because I am some staunch advocate of private schools. I am not. I would dearly like to see their hold on public life weakened during my lifetime. However, I believe that the best way to achieve this is for state schools not to resent them, but to emulate them.